Is it time to use our heads? The future of heading in Football.
This month former England Football captain Terry Butcher suggested that heading the ball should be phased out of football in order to reduce the risk of brain injuries. This statement follows a series of cases of dementia in well-known footballers, including Nobby Stiles who was the 5th member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad to be diagnosed with Dementia. An increasing amount of research is being carried out looking into the link between heading and injury, with one study showing footballers are over 3 times more likely to die of dementia than the general population. The governing bodies of football have taken some steps to address the issue, such as the English FA limiting heading in training for children, but it still remains a part of the sport.
As an insurance broker who has insured hundreds of football clubs, as well as other more dangerous sports, I know that injury is an inherent risk of sport and that eliminating all risk would not only ruin these sports it would be impossible. However, I also know that we should take reasonable steps to keep people safe. I will declare now that although I enjoy watching and participating in many sports, I was never a footballer, in fact my main team sport as a young man was Rugby, a sport with its own injury issues. However, I have 2 teenage children who have loved football since they were toddlers and play competitively at least once a week. As a parent and spectator one of the most exciting and satisfying experiences is seeing a goal scored by a header – something that gets the parents bouncing up and down with delight. On the other hand, one of my worst emotions is seeing the goalie give a massive kick out of hand soaring high into the air, crossing halfway and dropping down towards one of my sons in defence – I am silently urging him not to head it whilst the purists are urging him to do just that. Invariably he heads it beautifully, to appreciative shouts from spectators and teammates, he takes an almost imperceptible stagger then follows the play whilst I wince, wishing he had bottled it.
How would the game of football be changed if rules were altered so players could no longer head balls kicked from hand? Would the game be spoilt? How about limiting headers to the box or even removing all headers? In September this year Spennymoor Town and Team Solon played an 11 a side adult game where in the first half heading was only permitted in the box and was banned completely in the second half. The game was a success and was played under these rules to specifically highlight the issue of heading and head injuries and organised by the charity Head for Change which is campaigning for more awareness of the long-term damage that can be caused by headers.
Meanwhile the evidence continues to grow whilst the governing bodies move slowly. I suspect that governing bodies will resist radical change, even with evidence in front of them. Sadly, I predict change will only occur when they are faced with litigation from the families of injured players who will hold up decades of evidence and say that the authorities knew the risks but did not act – and the only winners will be the lawyers.
Personally, I would rule out heading kicks from goal as a minimum, I don’t think it would change the game, I would even be happy to see all heading removed, which would change the game – but not drastically. I know this opinion will not be popular and many of my colleagues who know more about football disagree with me. What do you think?